On bonds with others
Far better-known for his “God is dead” proclamation, the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was also an insightful observer of the human condition in matters from good and evil to love and obligation. And although his sometimes-misanthropic tendencies might make him a strange source for insights into the most loving of our connections to others, we have to take the glimmers of sense where we get them.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggests that every once in a while, the love of humankind brings us to embrace a particular person since we cannot embrace humankind as a whole; but it’s important not to let the embraced know that this is what’s going on. (“From love of man one occasionally embraces someone at random (because one cannot embrace all); but one must not tell him this—“.) And although there are elements of this in other human relationships we have with friends, family, and especially lovers, there’s nowhere that it’s quite as vivid as in your relationship to your child. I think that’s because a certain tension between the subjective and the objective is so tangible in the case of a child – especially a young one.
I feel subjectively the kind of loving bond toward my young son that parents tend to feel. I care about him more than I do about essentially anyone; I’d sacrifice myself for his well-being; and I devote significant chunks of my day-to-day life to trying to help him be a happy and thriving human being. In these ways, I’m not odd or special, I take it; these are just natural parts of the loving relationship of a parent with a young child.
But at the same time, I appreciate that there’s really nothing special about him — he’s just one of a billion kids in the world; some smarter, some cuter, many needier. Why, of the billion kids in the world, do I care in this special way about only this one? He’s not more deserving, or more rewarding, or more endearing than the others. He’s just mine. I don’t embrace him because of his particular intrinsic features; he could have had pretty much any other set of features and I would have embraced him just the same. He just happens to be, by cosmic chance, the child I got; he might as well have been randomly selected out of the big child pool. Sure, he looks a little like me, and some like my wife, and so on. But I surely would have felt the same about him if he hadn’t, or if he had been adopted.
We embrace our children not because of who they are, and what traits they have; we embrace them more or less no matter what traits and properties they have. They could have been anybody. They are Neitzsche’s randomly selected person; but not only do we not tell them this – we don’t even tell ourselves.
It’s also the kind of situation that, as 20th-century French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre points out, generates a kind of existential nausea when we reflect upon it: The things that are most important to our real, concrete lives — like the difference in my feeling toward my son rather than some other random child — are often things for which there is absolutely no real reason, and are just one accidental reality among the infinite possibilities.
In other relationships, this feature is diluted and hidden more. After all, I came to love my wife at least in part because of the particular properties and traits she had – her intelligence, passion, and wit. I love my mother in part because of the particular role she has played in my history. And to some extent, we pick our friends because their particular humor, taste, and quirks suit us. But surely these features in all these cases underdetermine our bonds with them. Different (if not completely different) properties would have done just as well.
Nietzsche says it’s the love of humanity in the abstract which drives us to embrace the particular human beings, But maybe the heart of the insight is right, but he got the direction wrong. Rather, I think, it’s the love of particular humans that illuminates for us the fundamental drive to the love of humankind. It’s seeing that the real and concrete love we have for other people — like our children — is so underdetermined by who they are in particular that it has to be grounded in something far more general, and more about our connection to humanity in general than to concrete persons in particular.